All manuscripts are unique and cataloguing them often leads to unexpected findings. The 73 albums of natural history drawings recently selected for cataloguing as part of a PhD placement project undertaken in the Modern Archives and Manuscripts Department at the British Library are no exception. Bird feathers, prints obtained from plant leaves, the wings of a dragonfly, a dried fish skin – at first, these objects seem to have little in common. In fact, they all belong to the same remarkable early modern collection of natural history drawings. So how do they fit within it?
The albums of drawings catalogued during this project were bequeathed by the physician and Royal Society fellow Hans Sloane (1660-1753), who kept them in his library alongside prints, manuscripts and printed books. You can learn more about Sloane’s legacy and his manuscripts through our collection guide. Plants and animals easily come to mind as subjects of natural history drawings, but in Sloane’s lifetime, this category encompassed a broader range of topics, all of which are represented in his collection. There are studies on human and animal anatomy, maps and charts, sketches of fossils and minerals, costume albums and architectural drawings, all executed in a range of techniques.
Paper is not the only material found in the albums: parchment, cardboard and canvas were used for watercolours, and a series of studies of butterflies was even executed on small veneer panels, pasted on the folios of an album.
There are not just albums in this collection. As the drawings vary significantly in size and format, they were housed differently. Pictured below is an example of a roll, filled with nature prints obtained from inking different leaves. A team effort was necessary to measure this more than 5 metres long roll, which will not fit on any Reading Room table!
A renowned collector, Sloane received donations and acquired works from many collecting enthusiasts, so that reconstructing the drawings’ provenance remains challenging. How this dried fish skin made its way into an album of miscellaneous fish drawings is unclear, but the accompanying inscription tells us that the fish was ‘from Gibraltar by the persons sent from the King of Poland to collect natural curiosities in Africa, 1732’. Sloane’s botanical specimens are now in the Natural History Museum, but some ‘organic matter’ remains in the albums.
Add MS 5267, item 99: dried fish skin with an eye made of cardboard, accompanied by an inscription in pen in brown ink.
In Sloane’s drawings collection, art and nature come together in fascinating ways. In a series of watercolours of birds by the naturalist George Edwards, the iridescent wings of a dragonfly were pasted around the drawn body of the insect.
In Sloane’s ambitious project to understand the variety of the natural world through arrangement and classification, specimens and artefacts were studied alongside images of the same. Could this help explain why a watercolour of a crossbill includes two real feathers from this bird pinned onto the sheet?
These are just some highlights from a multifaceted drawings collection, which we hope many British Library readers will be keen to explore and help research further. The descriptions of these albums will become available on our online catalogue in early 2022.
PhD placement student, Modern Archives and Manuscripts Department and PhD candidate, The Courtauld Institute of Art.
Further reading and links to online resources:
Reconstructing Sloane projects website Reconstructing Sloane – Welcome to Reconstructing Sloane.
Kim Sloan & Felicity Roberts, partial transcript of the handwritten British Library catalogue of Additional Manuscripts, vols 20-21, for Sloane’s albums of drawings (entries Add MSS 5018-5027 H and 5214-5308).
Sloane’s manuscript catalogue listing his albums along with books and printed ephemera, MS 3972 C vol IV
Some of Sloane’s Additional Manuscripts have been digitised thanks to funding by the Oak Foundation and Trinity College Cambridge and can be consulted online.